Exhibition review: Hilma af Klint, The Secret Paintings, AGNSW
In 1986, art historians who saw art as a form of linear progression “improving” over time received a brutal shock. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibition, The spiritual in art – Abstract paintings 1890 – 1985 presented a previously unknown woman artist.
The problem was not only that this art was exquisitely beautiful, but that the paintings were painted at the beginning of the 20th century.
Hilma af Klint was once known as a Swedish minor academic artist. Born in 1862, she was one of the first female graduates of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm and had exhibited at the Swedish General Arts Association.
But these paintings exhibited in Los Angeles revealed another life, a different art. Her involvement in spiritualism had radicalized her art to such an extent that she can only be described as one of the great abstract artists.
His job was the sensation of the Venice Biennale 2013, with a large-scale retrospective organized by the Moderna Museet presented in Stockholm, Berlin and Malaga the same year. In 2018, the exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York broken all attendance records. Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings brings his art to the southern hemisphere for the first time.
Af Klint’s transformation from a competent scholar into an inspiring mystical abstraction is the result of the same ideas that influenced many of his contemporaries, including Kandinsky, Mondrian, Klee and Malevich.
Rather than rewriting art history by inscribing her as a great woman artist hitherto unknown, it is probably more useful to consider these ideas and their impact on her art.
Scientific and mystical change
Scientific discoveries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries encouraged many to question the very nature of the universe.
In the 17th century, Isaac Newton discovered that light was made of particles. At the beginning of the 19th century, Goethe’s Color theory has led many to see that color has spiritual and psychological powers. At the beginning of the 20th century, Max Planck demonstrated that particles of light have energy.
Many began to think that if the universe was more than it appeared, then perhaps there were other lives living on different astral planes. Perhaps it was possible for some to be mediums, opening up to communicate with the spirit guides of these worlds.
At the end of the 19th century, a new religion, Theosophy, emerged, incorporating both ancient wisdom and modern science.
Today it may sound esoteric in the extreme, but Theosophy offered a seemingly logical and modern belief system. Its spread was worldwide and was a major factor in the liberation of color in early Australian modernism. In Sydney in 1926, the Theosophical Society was mainstream enough to launch a radio station: 2GB.
Lily: Five facts about the Met Masterpieces exhibition in Brisbane
It’s no surprise that Klint becomes a follower. What is surprising is the power of art that flows from it. In 1896, she joined with four colleagues a group they called The Five whose study of the spirit world included automatic drawing.
In 1906, his spiritual communications led his spiritual guide Amaliel to “commission” a new series, The Paintings for the Temple. She later described it as “the one great job I’ve done in my life.”
However, af Klint did not see itself as just a channel for the spirits to control:
“… it wasn’t the case that I had to blindly obey the spirits, but that I had to imagine that they were always standing by my side.”
The first Paintings for the Temple were completed five years before Kandinsky proclaimed his revolutionary argument for abstraction in The spiritual in art.
In 1907, she painted her large series of works, The ten biggest.
They are, in every way, a magnificent study of the seasons of life. Elements of nature, geometry and mysterious writing are traced through juvenile floral blues to the orange of youth, mauves and yellows of adulthood, then into the seeds of the old age where the red paint is all smeared and fine.
The value of being forgotten
To understand both why his art developed the way it did, and why he was so little known for so long, it’s probably worth considering the events of his life and his own position.
Hilma af Klint came from an aristocratic Swedish naval family. During World War I, Sweden’s position was armed neutrality, but she was only too aware of the carnage. His Swan series, started shortly after the outbreak of the war, pits the white swan against black as shapes become abstract, loop in harmony, dissolve into geometry and pure abstraction – until at the very end the two swans are locked together. Each contained elements of the other.
In 1908 Hilma af Klimt showed the Temple Paintings to Rudolph Steiner. He didn’t understand her job and didn’t appreciate the way she saw herself as working with spirits.
This, along with the burden of caring for her frail and blind mother, may be the reason she gave up painting for four years. It is perhaps also for this reason that she specified that her art should remain secret until 20 years after her death.
There is also a more pragmatic reason. Despite all its studied neutrality, Sweden was very close to Germany when the Nazis took power: radical abstract art with mystical overtones could have caused problems.
Hilma af Klint died in 1944. In 1970, after seeing the richness of her aunt’s creative legacy, her nephew Erik donated her art to the Moderna Museet in Sweden. The gift was dismissed out of hand when the director learned that she was a mystic and a medium.
A year later, Linda Nochlin publishes Why weren’t there great women artists? – an essay inaugurating a new era of scholarly reassessment of art by women.
Lily: Exhibition review: Surréalistes en mer, Art Gallery of SA
Maybe it was lucky that this gift was refused. Almost all of his art now belongs to the Hilma af Klint Foundation, created by his family. It will never be dispersed by the art market or the object of speculation on the part of dealers.
Instead, it is both a constant resource for researchers and for the public who marvel at the meditative beauty of its forms, the glow of its color, and the way it opens their eyes to new ways of seeing.
Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings is at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until September 19, then at the City Gallery Wellington from December 4.
Joanna mendelssohn, Principal Fellow (Hon), Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne. Editor-in-Chief, Design and Art of Australia Online, University of Melbourne.